California Poppy

Eschscholzia californica

field with orange-yellow flowers scattered throughout
Photo credit: Joe DeWolf | Central Basin | April 2017

Who doesn’t know the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), California’s state flower since 1903 and poster child of our Scenic Route signs? However, this charming poppy has become a pest in parts of Chile and Australia, where it has become established outside its native range.

Take a close look at a poppy and you will see a couple of unusual features. The two sepals are fused into a “dunce cap” over the bud; when the flower is ready to open, the cap is popped off. A rim around the receptacle at the base of the flower creates a flat shelf on which the seed capsule stands, This is quite evident after the petals have dropped.

Early Spaniards in California called poppies “Dormidera”, to fall asleep, because the flowers close in the evening, and sometimes during cloudy or foggy days.

Other Common Names:

cup of gold, golden poppy, Callifornia sunlight

Description 4,11,59,67

California poppy is an iconic flower of California,59 becoming the state flower in 1903 and appearing on the numerous Scenic Route signs.41 It is an herbaceous annual or short-lived perennial from a fleshy orange taproot.  It is quite variable throughout its range. The plant is much branched, usually less than two feet (60 cm) in height, the stems often sprawling with age.The leaves are finely subdivided two to four times,  the final segments being linear and only 1/32 to 1/8 inch (0.06 – 0.29 cm) wide. Both basal and smaller cauline leaves are present. Leaves and stems are generally hairless but may have a loose covering of wax that gives them a bluish color.

The conspicuous flowers are bright orange or yellow or, most often, orange at the center and yellow at the edge. Flowers are bisexual and radially symmetrical. Buds are conical and held upright. There are two sepals that are fused to form a cap over the bud; these detach and fall off as the bud opens The four satiny petals form a broad cup up to 2 1/2 inches (6 cm) across. Flowers close in the evening. California poppy blooms Feb.- Sept.1

There are numerous stamens, usually 20 or more, that are unequal in length. The yellow-orange filaments often have a a dark purplish band just above midpoint; to the unaided eye, they look like tiny beetles at the flowers center. The anthers are yellow-orange to orange and are generally longer than the filaments. There is one pistil with a superior ovary. The small ovary is green but it is difficult to see within the crowd of anthers. There is an inconspicuous style and two to four linear stigmas.

The fruit is a long, slender, ridged capsule surrounded by a flat, circular platform, formed by a horizontal rim around the receptacle (the torus). This is usually quite apparent on our plants after the petals have dropped, but can be inconspicuous. The two valves opens abruptly at maturity, propelling the tiny, rounded seeds outward. Seed coats have a delicate reticulated pattern.

Bright orange flower

Rios trailhead | April 2017

orange flower bundled up, about to bloom

Fused sepals being shed from opening flower | March 2017

close up of pollen center, long extended tube

Developing fruit and torus | Rios trailhead | April 2017

Distribution 7,11,23,67,89

California poppy is a California native that has been widely distributed elsewhere. It was originally found in the western United States from southern Washington into Baja, California and east into the Great Basin and parts of the Sonoran Desert. It is currently found from British Columbia into northern Mexico, east across Canada and into most of the states east of the Mississippi, as well as into Europe, South America and Australia. In California is it found in many habitats west of the mountains and in the western Mojave desert, and at elevations from near sea-level to 8000 feet (2500 m).

California once had vast poppy displays. Most of these large poppy fields have disappeared but significant reserves have been established in Antelope Valley (Los Angeles County), Bear Valley (Colusa Co.) and Pt Buchon (San Luis Obispo Co.).41 Elsewhere, California poppy continues to provide spring color in grassy slopes and flats throughout its range.

California poppy is often infrequent in the Reserve. Between 2011 and 2016, which was a period of below average precipitation, it was found in occasional patches of a few individuals. Only after the normal rainfall of 2016-17, did we see sizeable patches, even small carpets, in open areas along the trail and in the hills above, primarily west of Interstate-5.

Classification 2,44,59,71

California poppies are dicot angiosperms in the poppy family (Papaveraceae). Plants in this family often have flowers with milky sap, four or six conspicuous petals, half as many sepals and numerous stamens. This family includes several popular garden flowers as well as the opium poppy, which is the source of culinary poppy seeds and several well-known narcotics.

There are three other species of poppy reported from the Reserve: bush poppy (Dendromecon rigida), wind poppy (Papaver heterophyllum) and cream cups (Platystemon californicus).48

California poppy is a highly variable species. Over 90 taxa have been reported that are currently treated as synonymous.2 This may change.

Alternate Scientific Names:

Eschscholzia procera

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
Field of bright orange flowers and grass

Rios trailhead | March 2017

close up of orange poppy in the sun

Rios trailhead | April 2011

Orange poppies

Photo credit: Barbara Wallach | February 2010


California poppy does not produce nectar, but it does produce an abundance of pollen, and it is visited by a large number of different pollinating insects.67 It is a pollinator generalist.

To increase visibility to pollinators, a California poppy flower has a large central spot that absorbs ultra-violet radiation while reflecting the longer wavelengths. Ultraviolet light is not visible to humans, so we see a solid orange blossom. However insects can see the UV pattern which appears as a dark spot in the center of the flower that contrasts sharply with the UV-reflecting petal around it, guiding the insect to the pollen.332,333

close up of single orange flowers

Rios trailhead | March 2017

microscopic view of orange flower and pollen holders

Dark bands around filaments | Rios trailhead | May 2017

orange flowers in plants

Rios trailhead | April 2017

Human Uses

As yet, we have found no reports that California poppy was used by the local Kumeyaay. The Luisaño, just to the north, used the leaves for greens. They also made a chewing gum from wollypod milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa) and added the petals of California poppy for a bit of sweetness.17

California poppy appears in several Chumash legends. On earth, when animals were people, Lizard described to Coyote the California poppies out on the islands: “When you see it, it is as if the sun itself is on the ground.”15

The Spanish, who called California poppy Dormidera, “to fall asleep” because the flowers close in the evening, made a hair dressing by boiling petals in olive oil and adding perfume.23,174

orange flowers scattered in a field

Rios trailhead | April 2017

orange flower with petals separating

Developing seed capsule | Rios trailhead | May 2017

Closeup of bright orange flower

Rios trailhead | March 2017

Interesting Facts

When sailing along the coast, early Spaniards saw the brilliant poppy fields on the hills and called this “the land of fire.”34
California poppy seeds were collected and given to the Royal Botanical Society in England only ten years after the species was first described.67 It is likely, however, that it began its most rapid world travels at the end of the California gold rush. Miners returning to their distant homes often carried seeds for gardens.334 Seed was also spread in the ballast of ships and as a contaminant of alfalfa seed.334,335

California poppy has become a widespread weed in Chile334 and Australia.41,235 Because it may be toxic to animals,67 it threatens rangelands. There is at least one report that spread of California poppies has made large areas of grazing land unusable by livestock.11

Microscopic view of brown round seeds

Tiny seeds | Rios trailhead | May 2017

close up of orange flower blooming

Rios trailhead | March 2017

Field of poppies

Rios trailhead | April 2017

Photo Gallery